As Eco-Tourism Grows, Struggle for Cultural Identity Remains

Travel Blog  •  Joanna Kakissis  •  12.30.08 | 1:08 PM ET

Photo by jackmora via Flickr (Creative Commons).

In places heavy with history and natural beauty, eco-tourism often comes deeply infused with nostalgia. Consider the 300-year-old Aspros Potamos cottages in eastern Crete, where goatherds once spent wintry nights as their flocks grazed along the mountain gorge. An Athenian journalist rescued the cottages from dilapidation in 1985 and turned them into simple, solar-powered lodges for those who want to commune with nature and a disappearing culture.

This time of year, you may find young Greeks on winter holiday there, gathered around a communal campfire and singing their grandparents’ favorite folk songs. It’s as much an appreciation of Crete’s fragile natural beauty as an exercise in identity.

A couple of summers ago, I visited Aspros Potamos (which translates as “White River” for a stream that dried up years before) and learned from Aleka Halkia, the aforementioned journalist, just how hard it was to get this venture off the ground. First, she had to fight the behemoth that is traditional big-money corporate tourism in the Mediterranean, which lures municipalities with promises of jobs but also drains the area’s resources and Disney-fies its culture. Then she had to fight off local developers and politicians for the right to preserve the cottages and run a sustainable operation.

No one thought she would make it—tourists want TVs and beaches, they told her, not oil lamps and mountain hikes—but 23 years later, Aspros Potamos (now run by her daughter and son-in-law) is flourishing. Eco-lodges are now the rage, and so is a back-to-basics sense of culture. “The idea finally found its time,” Halkia had told me.

But eco-tourism is becoming a big business, which, like any mass operation, can still strain local culture. Don’t get me wrong—sustainable land management, renewable energy and energy-efficient lodges are all wonderful additions to the tourism world, but even the most well-intentioned, eco-friendly operation that turns large-scale can degrade the environment and blanch the culture.

Cultural preservation fueled a years-long battle between Native Hawaiians on the island of Molokai and a group of off-island investors who wanted to turn a western portion of the island into a green development that included conserving 26,000 acres of land, resurrecting a depressed neighborhood and adding jobs. The catch: The venture would be largely financed by building 200 luxury homes along the beach.

The locals who live in a place that proclaims itself “the most Hawaiian island” stalled the plan in part because even a development that offered a sustainable future and a renewed economy for the island risked retaining Molokai’s “pono”—the Hawaiian idea for something that is honorable and “in balance.”

I tend to believe that “pono” in any eco-tourism context can only be achieved by small-scale ventures that nurture both the land and the community. But in this age of globalization, I don’t know if locals can ultimately prevail over the internationalists.

Joanna Kakissis's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, among other publications. A contributor to the World Hum blog, she's currently a Ted Scripps fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

3 Comments for As Eco-Tourism Grows, Struggle for Cultural Identity Remains

Guillaume 01.02.09 | 6:44 AM ET

Really good article, you raised interesting questions. I used on my blog. Have a look!

Philip Murithi 01.05.09 | 8:38 AM ET

It is true; if not managed well, ecotourism enterprises and destinations will fall victim to the curse of success, the so-called tourism self-destruct syndrome where numbers keep increasing until the destination becomes degraded.  Woe unto to the local community that relies solely on tourism as one way to beat this vulnerability is to have alternative sources of income that are compatible with tourism.

Lucile 02.20.09 | 7:28 AM ET

Hi, I just discovered an awesome website that could help travelers planning their trips :
If you feel like a new Marco Polo, you should definitely take a look!
Itís a community-based website for travelers and craftspeople around the world who talk about the neat items they create and the cool finds they make!
You can share your best travel experiences by uploading unusual, authentic or ethical cool finds and though help other travelers to locate the cool objects to bring back from their trips! You can also show the world your personal creations.
It supports the ecotourism as well :)

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